In late January, as the polar vortex of 2019 gripped the Midwest, my group of friends were enjoying some rest and relaxation at a resort on Minnesota’s icy North Shore. After checkout, one sensible couple fled to balmy Austin, Texas, for the second half of their vacation. But my companion and I pushed 100 miles farther north — to Thunder Bay, Ontario.
What can I say? When they go hot, we go cold.
The evocatively named Thunder Bay had always held some fascination for me. It’s the largest city on Lake Superior (population: 108,000), and I imagined a Canadian version of Duluth. It’s also the closest foreign city to Minneapolis. But when I first passed through a few years ago, I found only a sprawl of U.S. big-box stores, fast-food chains and strip malls. I was determined to return and find the soul of the city.
Over three days, we began to discover some of TBay’s beauty and charms. An outdoorsy summer visit is in order, but we found plenty of food and fun to go along with the 30-below lows.
Giants and museums
One moment the Minnesotan visitor is driving north on Ontario’s Hwy. 61 through pristine poplar and pine forest and flat-topped mesas. Suddenly he or she enters Thunder Bay through its back door, and the sprawl bewilders. With little in the way of a skyline, downtown seems elusive.
Thunder Bay makes more sense when you begin on its east end. That starts with the Sleeping Giant, a 3-mile mesa formation that is part of a popular provincial park, and keeps a drowsy sentinel from across the city’s namesake bay (ontarioparks.com).
The Giant, and the city, can both be viewed from the Terry Fox Monument. In 1980, the 21-year-old Fox, with one leg amputated due to cancer, embarked on his trans-Canadian Marathon of Hope to raise money for cancer research. He was forced to end his run here, and died nine months later. The statue, which we visited during a colorful sunset, depicts Fox eternally running toward the West. He remains a Canadian folk hero, and a veritable symbol of Thunder Bay itself.
Still unclear about the city’s place in the world, I headed to the Thunder Bay Museum (thunderbaymuseum.com). It turns out that Thunder Bay has no skyline because it was incorporated only in 1970, in an “amalgamation” of two smaller industrial towns, Fort William and Port Arthur.
Tightly curated dioramas break it all down, from post-Ice Age peoples through the French fur trade and logging to British rule and today. Albert the Albertosaurus, Canada’s own T-rex relative, dominates the second floor. The third floor is split between memorabilia from Thunder Bay’s rich musical heritage (notably Paul Shaffer, bandleader for David Letterman) and military history. There’s an arresting photograph of the Lake Superior Regiment marching out of Port Arthur in 1940, on its way to Europe. The looks on the young men’s faces say it all.
Thunder Bay Art Gallery is northwest Ontario’s primary gallery devoted to First Nations artists. On display is M’Chigeeng artist Carl Beam’s “Exorcism,” a complicated wall-sized work of wood, barbed wire and paint. At its 1984 debut, Beam had three guests embed hatchets in the work, and an archer fired arrows into the canvas. It will be a centerpiece of the gallery’s new modern space on the Thunder Bay lakefront, projected to open by 2020 (theag.ca).
Poutine, Persians and beer
We made a beeline to La Poutine, a bastion of the quintessential Canadian dish. Here they pronounce it “pu-TIN,” French-language rock blares, and tough-looking ladies dish out traditional and distinctly nontraditional varieties. A buffalo blue chicken poutine arrived with barbecue sauce, Sriracha and blue cheese sauce, while an honest-to-Dieu vegan version was loaded with mushrooms, onions, peppers, guac and animal-free cheese and gravy (la-poutine.net).
Finns were an important immigrant group here, so 101-year old Hoito (thehoito.ca) is a breakfast must. Housed in the historic Finnish Labour Temple in the homey Bay & Algoma neighborhood, the yellow and blue dining room is part Scandinavian modernism and part basement cafeteria. All-day breakfast revolves around the delectable Finnish pancake; mine acted as a burrito-like wrapping for eggs, sausage and Cheddar, alongside home fries.
“You haven’t been to Thunder Bay until you’ve had a Persian,” more than one resident told us. So we sought out the Persian Man, a strip-mall bakery and cafe. But this Persian has nothing to do with Iran — it’s a reference to U.S. Gen. John Pershing, who visited baker Art Bennett in the 1940s. It’s like a cinnamon roll but sweeter, with a closely guarded secret ingredient and a jellylike pink frosting. The bakery claims to move 100 dozen a day on average.
Sleeping Giant Brewing occupies an unassuming metal building, but inside, the state of Canadian craft beer is strong. Pallets of colorful cans flank the taproom as folks congregate at long tables. The beer list emphasizes easy-drinking ales and stouts with relatively low bitterness, including the flagship Northern Logger, a juicy Kolsch. I liked it so much I bought the T-shirt, featuring a diabolical Paul and Babe drawn by Minneapolis illustrator Adam Turman (sleepinggiantbrewing.com).
Would you believe that Thunder Bay has a thriving drag-queen community?
When it comes to nightlife, all paths lead to Red River Road, a row of restaurants, bars and boutiques. And the heart of the music scene — and the drag scene — is the Black Pirates Pub (blackpiratespub.com). We missed the annual Derelicte wearable-art fashion show by a few days. Instead we hit Night 1 of the Cover Show, in which a grab bag of local musicians credibly impersonated classic acts — including the Pixies, Pink Floyd and Guns N’ Roses.
We hopped across the street to the Foundry, a more grown-up listening room, for fish tacos and an acoustic duo. There was also poutine (thefoundrypub.com).
Where to stay
We took shelter at the viking-themed Valhalla Inn by the airport, but it’s far from the action (valhallainn.com). The more central Prince Arthur Waterfront Hotel was recommended (princearthurwaterfront.com). The city’s waterfront district is growing hotter, with the four-star Delta Hotel slated to open in April (marriott.com).
Thunder Bay is 340 miles from the Twin Cities via Interstate 35 and Hwy. 61. You’ll need a passport, passport card or NEXUS card to enter Canada; officials asked if we had a weapon and searched our car. Who says this is a soft border? It’s another 40 miles to the city.